When discussing picky eating, it’s essential to search beyond the simplistic views that it’s all about taste preferences. A holistic understanding requires considering sensory sensitivities and the complex relationship between taste,  texture and tongue. This perspective offers a fresh angle on why some individuals exhibit strong aversions to certain foods, pointing to a nuanced interplay of sensory processing issues rather than mere dislike.

Not all picky eating is simple. Some children have sensory food aversions and that’s why they just don’t eat and often parents are told ‘it’s just a phase’ they will outgrow or it’s a behavioral problem. 

Well what if I were to tell you that it wasn’t.

What if it is a physical problem? What if it is a structural problem?  They will not outgrow them and they will grow into other problems. 

Research tells us that the majority of children who refuse to eat either:

  1. can’t eat because they have a gap in their eating and drinking skills (oral motor skills)
  2. won’t eat because it’s thoroughly unpleasant due to how it affects their sensory system.
  3. Can’t eat breathe and swallow at the same time

Essentially, what I’m saying is that it’s not them being naughty kids, it’s not a behavioral issue, it’s not ‘all in their heads’, it’s all in their bodies.

In my experience, no two picky eaters are the same, their eating habits are so individual that it can take a deep look at what’s happening to be able to start to dissect it.

How children learn to eat

It starts as soon as we are born with bottle feeding vs breastfeeding. Eating is one of the most complex tasks that human beings ever need to master. We think it’s simple, we just sit down and eat. But actually it’s far more complicated than that. How are they functioning? How are they breathing? What type of diet do they have? 

It can take a typically developing child 2-3 years to learn how to eat. If your little one has difficulties along the way, this time extends significantly. 

Learning to eat involves a whopping 32 step process(1) for each and every food, and that begins with the sensory system. 

In addition to the sensory side of things children also learn to eat through cues in their environment and how we as parents interact around food in front of them. Our kids learn from us. Their likes and dislikes are learned and come from what they are exposed to. 

Sensory Sensitivities: More Than Just Taste

Sensory sensitivities can profoundly affect eating habits, extending far beyond the tongue’s taste receptors. For individuals with heightened sensory sensitivity, the way it looks, the texture, smell, color, and even the sound of food can be as significant as its taste. This can lead to a condition known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), where the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Foods with particular textures, such as those that are slimy, gritty, or have mixed textures, can be particularly challenging for someone with SPD, leading to avoidance. My daughter used to spit the toothpaste back out at me. As a dental hygienist I thought she was just being defiant and I was not having it. I used to put her in a headlock to brush her teeth. We tried 12 different toothpastes. I had no ideas about SPD. Knowing what I know now I would have handled that much differently, it was traumatic for both of us.  I just started brushing without toothpaste and no more problems. You do not have to use toothpaste to prevent cavities. It is just one piece of the puzzle. I did not know what I did not know. I felt like a failure as a dental professional and a terrible Mom having put my child through that.  We had well water and I thought if I don’t use toothpaste she will get cavities. Because that is what I was taught. I now know cavities happen when the pH drops below 6.5. Balancing the pH prevents cavities along with nasal breathing, water, nutrition and enough sleep.

The Complexity of Taste and Texture

The interplay between taste and texture plays a crucial role in food preferences and aversions. Foods that might taste acceptable can still be rejected based on their texture. For example, someone might enjoy the flavor of strawberries but cannot stand their texture. This complexity suggests that picky eating is not merely about disliking flavors but about how the brain interprets the combination of sensory inputs.

 This perspective can lead to more effective strategies for addressing picky eating, emphasizing the need for patience, understanding, and gradual exposure to new foods. It also highlights the importance of sensory-friendly food preparation and presentation techniques that can make food more appealing to those with heightened sensory sensitivities.

Tongue Twists: Understanding Texture Aversions

Texture aversions, often dismissed as whims, are rooted in the brain’s processing of sensory inputs. These aversions can be so strong that they trigger gag reflexes or intense discomfort, making certain foods intolerable. It’s a phenomenon that underscores the importance of considering the full sensory experience of eating when addressing picky eating. The tongue also protects the airway, form follows function if there is not enough room for the tongue chewing, breathing and swallowing do not work in synchronicity. 

Picky eating in children can sometimes be a symptom of underlying issues that extend beyond simple food preferences or typical developmental phases. Among these, tongue ties, breathing difficulties, and myofunctional disorders are significant concerns that parents should be aware of, as they can impact not only eating habits but overall health growth and development. Understanding these conditions and knowing what signs to look for can empower parents to seek appropriate interventions.

What are the consequences of sensory food aversions?

Nutritional deficiencies

I have so many parents come to me who have GP’s or Health providers that are not interested in helping because the child is growing and they feel they will outgrow this stage,  but it’s about so much more than that!

If your child misses out on entire food groups or eats very few foods, they may not be getting the full range of nutrients that they need leading to nutritional deficiencies. 

It’s not just as simple as giving them a multivitamin, first we need to identify which nutrients their diets are falling short of and replace those. There is such a thing as having ‘ too much of a good thing’ and this is the risk when you use a generic multivitamin, too much of a nutrient can be just as harmful as too little. They may not be absorbing the nutrients they are getting. 

You’ll need to work with a dietitian or doctor who can assess, test and advise appropriately.

Family stress

I don’t need to tell you how hard it is, especially if  you’re living with the struggle every single day. I just want you to know that I understand how it feels after helping my daughter, through her sensory food aversions. You are not crazy, your child is not bad, listen to your instincts there is someone who can help you through this. 

The daily battles, the constant worrying if they’re eating enough of the right things, knowing what to cook for different members of the family so that no one goes hungry, not cooking two or three different meals, to prevent the tears and the tantrums.  Creating bad habits that will be hard to break in the future.

How children learn to not eat

Children eat multiple times a day and if their sensory systems are telling them it’s unpleasant, eating is quickly learned to be a negative experience.

When negative experiences happen the body’s natural reaction is a stress response to escape the situation by either: 

  • fight – tantrums, kicking, hitting, arguments, throwing food, causing drama at the table 
  • flight – fidgeting, running away, avoiding going to school or friends houses for tea
  • freeze – breath holding, child closes down, won’t talk.
  • If your child has had a negative experience with food, for example they are over responsive to the auditory sense (hearing) and they are being asked to eat their lunch in a noisy cafeteria l at school. It’s going to be really unpleasant for them and they are not going to be able to eat. 
  • Not only are there different textured foods packed into each bite – bread, lettuce, cucumber, ham etc, but with every chew, the feel of the food changes. 
  • It goes from one soft lump, to multiple pieces of food that the tongue needs to keep track of. 
  • As they chew more, what was once a bite of sandwich is now one wet ball rolling around their mouth! 
  • Your child must be able to tolerate all of these different textures in order to successfully be able to eat the sandwich.

Does my child need a diagnosis?

  • First things first, understanding that your child is not being naughty, difficult or fussy is very important. Avoiding food is not something that they are choosing to do.
  • Understand that it’s their body telling them that the food isn’t right for them.
  • Next, comes individual feeding therapy. Please arrange this for your child; they won’t get better without it. 
  • I practice hypnotherapy where I use my knowledge of these steps to eating to gently advance children’s sensory preferences to help them learn to like challenging foods.
  • I also want to make a note here that typical fussy eating advice may not work. 
  • When you’re dealing with a sensory food aversion your child isn’t going to grow out of it and it won’t go away on their own. Expert advice, feeding therapy, myofunctional therapy or other modalities may  be needed. .
  • If you would like professional help with your child’s fussy eating, you can book a free call with me https://shereewertz.com/15-min

The fight-flight-freeze response is your body’s natural reaction to danger. It happens through hormonal and physiological changes that allow you to act quickly so you can protect yourself.

It is a type of stress response that helps you react to perceived threats, like an oncoming car or a growling dog. It’s a survival instinct that our ancient ancestors developed many years ago. I experienced this as a child. My Mom played a joke on us because we would not come in after dark. She told a story to scare us. I was running away, saw a dark figure in the shadow and froze. I can still see it so vividly to this day. 

Specifically, fight-or-flight is an active defense response where you fight or flee. Your heart rate gets faster, which increases oxygen flow to your major muscles. Your pain perception drops, and your hearing sharpens. These changes help you act appropriately and rapidly.

Fight-flight-freeze isn’t a conscious decision. It’s an automatic reaction, so you can’t control it. 

What’s going on in the body

During a fight-flight-freeze response, many physiological changes occur.

The reaction begins in your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for perceived fear. The amygdala responds by sending signals to the hypothalamus, which stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The ANS consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system drives the fight-or-flight response, while the parasympathetic nervous system drives freezing. How you react depends on which system dominates the response at the time.

In general, when your ANS is stimulated, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. These hormones are released very quickly, which can affect your:

  • Heart rate. Your heart beats faster to bring oxygen to your major muscles. During freezing, your heart rate might increase or decrease.
  • Lungs. Your breathing speeds up to deliver more oxygen to your blood. In the freeze response, you might hold your breath or restrict breathing.
  • Ears. Your ears “perk up” and your hearing becomes sharper.
  • Blood. Blood thickens, which increases clotting factors. This prepares your body for injury.
  • Skin. Your skin might produce more sweat or get cold. 
  • Hands and feet. As blood flow increases to your major muscles, your hands and feet might get cold.
  • Pain perception. Fight-or-flight temporarily reduces your perception of pain.

Your specific physiological reactions depend on how you usually respond to stress. You might also shift between fight-or-flight and freezing, but this is very difficult to control.

Usually, your body will return to its natural state after 20 to 30 minutes.

Mouth Breathing also puts the body in fight or flight. 

Tongue Ties

A tongue tie (ankyloglossia) occurs when the strip of skin connecting the bottom of the tongue to the floor of the mouth (lingual frenulum) is shorter than usual. This condition can restrict tongue movement, making it challenging for children to eat certain foods, especially those requiring more complex mouth movements like licking, sweeping, or chewing thoroughly.

Signs to Look For:

  • Difficulty with breastfeeding in infants, including latching problems or a clicking sound while feeding.
  • Limited tongue movement; inability to stick out the tongue past the lips or move it side to side.
  • Challenges with foods that require chewing or moving food around the mouth.
  • Speech difficulties, especially with sounds that require tongue mobility, such as “t,” “d,” “z,” “s,” “th,” and “r.”

Breathing Difficulties

Breathing difficulties, particularly those related to mouth breathing, can influence eating habits. Mouth breathing can alter facial development and affect the oral cavity’s structure, impacting chewing and swallowing. Additionally, children who breathe through their mouths may prefer softer foods that require less effort to chew and swallow, avoiding more textured or harder foods.

Signs to Look For:

  • Persistent mouth breathing, especially during sleep.
  • Snoring or sleep disturbances.
  • Eating quickly to resume breathing through the mouth.
  • Preferring softer foods or liquids that are easier to swallow without closing the mouth.
  • Bedwetting
  • Night terrors
  • open mouth posture
  • Dark circles under the eyes

Myofunctional Disorders

Myofunctional disorders encompass a range of issues related to the muscles of the mouth and face, affecting breathing, swallowing, speech, and chewing. These disorders can be related to or exacerbated by tongue ties and mouth breathing, leading to difficulties in effectively processing a variety of foods.

Signs to Look For:

  • Difficulty swallowing or a tendency to swallow with a lot of movement in the face or neck.
  • Persistent drooling beyond the toddler years.
  • Chewing with the mouth open or taking a long time to chew food.
  • Avoidance of certain textures or types of food due to difficulty processing them in the mouth.

What Parents Can Do

If you notice any of these signs in your child, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional. Myofunctional therapist, speech-language pathologists, pediatric dentists, or orthodontists specialized in these areas can provide assessments and recommend interventions. Interventions might include exercises to strengthen the muscles of the mouth and face, procedures to correct tongue ties, or strategies to encourage nose breathing.

Early intervention is key to addressing these issues effectively. By recognizing the signs early and seeking appropriate care, parents can help mitigate the effects of these conditions on eating habits and overall development, leading to better health outcomes for their children.

In conclusion, picky eating extends far beyond simple taste preferences, involving a complex web of sensory sensitivities and perceptions. By acknowledging and understanding these factors, caregivers and individuals can develop more empathetic and effective approaches to managing picky eating, leading to more enjoyable eating experiences, better sleep and a healthier life.

  1. https://sosapproachtofeeding.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/SOS-APPROACH-explanation-for-parents-w-logo.pdf
  2. https://childrensnutrition.co.uk/full-blog/sensory-food-aversions/
  3.  You are welcome to book a 20 minute free discovery call with a feeding specialist to find out how they can help.